John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.2, ch. 21 : Jesus' healing,
pp 678-772

(Detailed summary)

Which of the stories of healings are likely to date back to the time of Jesus?


Various criteria of historicity lead us to affirm that the historical Jesus performed a number of actions during his public ministry that he and his contemporaries interpreted as miraculous healings of the sick and infirm. The main categories of healing involve people with paralysed limbs, blindness, various skin diseases (leprosy), or being deaf and dumb. As far as individual miracle stories are concerned, a number are likely to go back to the historical Jesus, even if they have been reworked and developed from a Christian theological perspective : the paralyzed man being lowered through the roof, the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, the blind man Bartimaeus begging at the gate of Jericho, the blind man of Bethsaida, the blind man who washed himself at the pool of Siloam, the deaf and dumb, and the servant or son of an officer of Antipas. However, the detail of these illnesses is forever lost to us.

When we look at the diversity of diseases reported in the New Testament, it is not easy to group them into well-defined categories. For the purposes of our analysis, let us group them as follows: paralytics, the blind, lepers and other physical afflictions. The number of these healing stories is so much greater than the number of Jesus' exorcisms that it can be said that the first and second generations of Christians remembered Jesus much more as a healer than as an exorcist.

  1. The Paralyzed and the Crippled

    1. Mark 2: 1-12 : the paralytic from Capernaum

      It is a complex narrative where, in addition to a simple story of healing, there are extraneous elements such as the forgiveness of sins, Jesus' ability to read the thoughts of scribes and the claim that the Son of Man can forgive sins. By the end of the early Christian generations, the story had already gone through several stages of development. But the unusual and unique gesture of tearing down a roof to bring down the paralytic lying on his pallet probably dates back to a surprising event that struck the collective memory.

    2. John 5: 1-9: the cripple at the pool in Bethesda.

      At times it has been attempted to relate this account of John, where a cripple lies by the healing waters of a swimming pool, to the account of the paralytic from Capernaum (Mk 2: 1-12). But there are many differences: John speaks of a cripple, not of a paralytic; in John's account, it is Jesus who takes the initiative to heal someone who expresses no faith, and this action is clearly accomplished on the Sabbath; finally, in John's account, healing is not associated at first with a forgiveness of sins.

      This account is therefore quite distinct. But what is important to note is that this five-paned pool at Bethesda has been confirmed both by the Copper Scroll of Qumran and by the 20th century archaeological excavations which uncovered two large pools and a series of smaller pools just north of the Temple, where St. Anne's Church now stands. Moreover, the personality of the crippled man does not fit in with the usual miracle stories: he is ambivalent about his healing, expresses no gratitude, and later does not hesitate to denounce Jesus to the authorities, only to disappear from the Gospel. It is hard to see how all this could be a pure creation of the evangelist. We are probably facing events that go back to Jesus himself.

    3. Mark 3: 1-6: the man with the withered hand

      In this account where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, we can observe Mark's editorial work: he reads this account together with the previous one to create a cycle of controversy with the Pharisees who accuse Jesus of blasphemy because of his attitude towards the Sabbath and make the decision to find a way to put him to death. And by asserting that the Son of Man has authority over the Sabbath he makes it less a legal controversy than a Christological one. The artificial side of this controversy is accentuated by the fact that Jesus cannot be accused of breaking the Sabbath, since He does not take any action: He only asks the cripple to raise his hand. Finally, it is difficult to understand how the peasants of Galilee could be so meticulous in the face of the Mosaic Law, when we know that even the Pharisees did not agree among themselves on the application of various points of the Law. Thus, this controversy over the Sabbath, as presented in Mark 3: 1-6, probably does not date back to a historical event. And if we remove this controversy on the Sabbath, we find ourselves before a brief, insipid account of a miracle that lacks any singular elements that would allow us to perceive in it the echo of any event. Is this enough to deny any historical value? We cannot decide.

    4. Luke 13: 10-17 : the bent woman

      Luke's unique narrative reflects his vocabulary, his partial assimilation of healing as an exorcism, his theme of the glorification of God and the joy before the wonderful works of Jesus, plus some phrases that mimic the Greek text of the Old Testament. However, certain details of the story could point to a pre-Lucanian source: the opponent is a synagogue ruler and no Pharisee is present, the woman has been afflicted with this disease for eighteen years, a figure which has no theological value. These details could be an echo of a tradition going back to the historical Jesus, but they are not sufficient to make a judgment.

    5. The Centurion's Servent (Matthew 8: 5-13 parr.)?

      Matthew is the only one to speak of a case of paralysis for this account he receives from the Q tradition, whereas Luke, usually more faithful to his sources, speaks rather of a sick person about to die, just like John in a similar account. So it is better to treat this story later under the category of various illnesses.

    6. "The Lame Walk" (Matthew 22: 6 par.)

      We have analyzed this text where Jesus responds to the envoys of John the Baptist in our chapter on John the Baptist. When Jesus wants to summarize his action, the healing of the lame is one of the five types of miracles that comes to mind. So no matter how we judge individual miracles, the fact that Jesus performed this type of miracle is firmly rooted in the oldest tradition of Jesus' ministry.

  2. The Blind

    1. Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52 parr.)

      The account of the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus in Jericho is a pivotal point in Mark 8: 22-10:52. First of all, there was a first healing of the blind man in Bethsaida in Mk 8: 22-26. The latter has symbolic value in reference to Peter. Indeed, immediately after this account we witness the profession of faith of Peter who "sees" Jesus as the "Messiah". But for Mark this profession of faith is incomplete, for this "Messiah" can only be understood after his death on the cross, when the centurion cries out as he sees him expire: "Truly this man was the son of God. "At that moment the veil of the temple will be torn in two, symbolizing the unveiling of the truth of things. In order to reach this profession of faith, a second healing of his blindness is needed, and this is what Bartimaeus' healing symbolizes. In fact, after his healing, Mark writes that Bartimaeus begins to follow him on the path, the path that leads from Jericho to Jerusalem, therefore to the place of his death on a cross.

      Given the highly theological value of this account, it would be extremely naive to see a video film of the events. And yet a number of details are surprising, starting with the name of the blind man: Bartimaeus. The beneficiary of a miracle is never named in the entire New Testament, except here. Moreover, Luke and Mattieu, who repeat this account, omit his name. So we have an argument of discontinuity for Mark's account.

      Then we find in our account Aramaic words, the language of Jesus. Speaking to a non-Jewish audience, Mark feels the need to clarify the meaning of the name Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus (bar Timai). Another feature suggests the Palestinian origin of this story, Bartimaeus' use of the Aramaic word "Rabbouni", meaning teacher or professor.

      In addition, the geographical data are extremely revealing. Everything happens at the exit of Jericho, at the gate of the city that leads to Jerusalem, thirty kilometres away. Why would a blind man stand there? The reason is simple. We are very close to the Jewish Passover, so many Jews, including those from Galilee in the north, are taking the southern route to make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And since they try to avoid the road that passes through the center through Samaria, those violent heretics, they use the Jordan Valley to the east to avoid Samaria, and that road necessarily passes through Jericho. And those who take the gate of Jericho that leads to Jerusalem are mostly pilgrims full of good will and ready to give alms to beggars, like Bartimaeus. Our account is therefore consistent with the religious and cultural milieu.

      Finally, there is an expression in the narrative that is often misunderstood by biblical scholars, which accentuates even more its Palestinian features: son of David. Twice Bartimaeus challenges Jesus with this title, whereas this title is never found in the miracle stories of Mark, and indeed nowhere else in the miracle stories of the New Testament, except in those that depend on it. There is no need to look for an explanation for the notion of the messiah as son of David: tradition has never associated the ability to perform miracles with the messiah. On the other hand, in the first century, King Solomon, son of David, had acquired a reputation in Jewish circles as a great exorcist and healer. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us the story of Eleazar who performed exorcisms by invoking the name of Solomon and using incantations he had composed. The Testament of Solomon, written apocryphal in the 3rd century AD, but based on a centuries-old tradition, reflects the same perception. But this association of Solomon with the healing charism is totally absent from the New Testament, except in Bartimaeus' account. How can this unique element be interpreted, if not as a relic of the way some Jews with infirmities looked at Jesus in the first century.

      Thus, in spite of the theological role that Mark makes this story play, its heart goes back to historical elements of the period of Jesus and is not a pure Christian creation.

    2. The Blind Man of Bethsaida (Mark 8: 22-26)

      Bethsaida is a small fishing village on the northeast shore of Lake Galilee. This story of Jesus taking himself twice to heal the blind man is so strange that Luke and Matthew have eliminated it from their Gospel.

      There is an editorial aspect to the story, as it occupies a pivotal point in the whole 6: 30 to 8: 21. This section, which is called the "section of the loaves" because the word bread is the unifying theme of the whole, involves two crowd feedings. In the first narrative Jesus feeds five thousand people and it ends with the healing of a deaf-mute (7: 32-37). The second feeding involves four thousand people and ends with the healing of our blind man in Bethsaida. Thus, after Jesus' rebuke for not seeing what this crowd feeding event means, this healing refers to what they need to understand. And the very fact that this healing takes place in two stages points to the two stages the disciples will have to go through, first Peter's profession of faith which follows at Caesarea, where he proclaims that Jesus is Messiah, an incomplete profession of faith, and finally the complete profession after Easter. All of this is in line with Mark's theological agenda, where the identity of Jesus can only be discovered gradually, and completely only after his death on the cross.

      In spite of its catechetical aspect, the account contains historical elements, beginning with the mention of Bethsaida. It is very rare for a city to be associated with a miracle story (see also Jericho, Capernaum, Gerasa). And one can use the criterion of multiple attestations (Mark and Q document) to support the claim that Jesus performed miracles in Bethsaida. Then we can use the criterion of embarrassment: Jesus not only uses saliva to heal, but according to the literal meaning of the text he spits in the eyes of the blind man. At that time, saliva played a magical role and Jesus performs the same gestures as the healers or magicians of Galilee. This scene must have been all the more embarrassing for the first Christians because Jesus had to ask the patient about the effects of the cure ("Do you see something?") and apply a second treatment (he put his hands over the blind man's eyes again). To this can be added the argument of discontinuity: the role of saliva as an instrument of healing appears only here and in Mark's earlier account (7: 33), which some biblical scholars see as a doublet in our narrative, and does not fit in with any Christological trend in the early church. Finally, we note the absence of a certain number of themes that we often see in miracle accounts, such as the faith of both the recipients and the beggars, or the wonder of the crowd.

      In short, despite Mark's catechetical use of the story, the heart of the story is historical: Jesus probably healed a blind man around Bethsaida.

    3. The Man Born Blind (John 9: 1-41)

      This long narrative is a literary and theological work that reveals the fine hand of the evangelist, especially in the various dialogues. When we apply the critique of forms, we can first isolate the primitive narrative which is limited to the first seven verses and where we find the usual structure: 1) presentation of the problem; 2) the gesture of healing; 3) affirmation/demonstration of healing with witness reaction. The critique of the forms also allows us to identify secondary elements, such as the fact that healing takes place on a Sabbath, mentioned in verse 14, which only aims to introduce the controversy with the Pharisees. Similarly, the dialogue (vv 2-5) with the disciples prompted by the question about the cause of blindness is also secondary, since it reflects Johannine themes, and could be removed without breaking the continuity of the narrative. The primitive miracle account is therefore summarized in vv 1.6-8.

      In passing, Jesus saw a man who had been blind since birth... Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with his saliva, then applied the mud to his eyes, saying to him, "Go and wash in the pool of Siloam (which translates as "the Sent One")". So he went away and washed, and came back seeing clearly.

      This story is similar to other healing stories from the oral tradition. But it does not seem to depend on any one in particular. It is the second miracle of Jesus in Jerusalem, after that of the pool of Bethesda, and the account assumes a good knowledge of the topography of the city of Jerusalem before 70. The pool of Siloam is located at the southwest corner of the eastern hill of biblical Jerusalem, where the valleys of Kidron and Gehenna meet. This pool is mentioned both by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and by the Copper Scroll of Qumran. The mention of the Pool of Siloam is unique in the miracle traditions of the entire New Testament.

      Another unique element is the use of mud applied to the eyes of the blind. One could relate this story where Jesus spits on the ground to Mark's story where Jesus spits on the eyes of the blind man, but the fact remains that this is a different use of saliva and reinforces the element of discontinuity in our story. Other unique elements include the absence of an expression of faith that would bring about the miracle, as is usually seen in other miracle stories: it is Jesus who takes the initiative to heal.

      All these unique elements lead us to conclude that the early tradition is historical: it is highly probable that Jesus healed a blind man in Jerusalem in the curious circumstances mentioned in Jn 9: 6-7. Was this man really blind from birth? That cannot be confirmed.

    4. "The Blind See" (Matthew 11: 5 || Luke 7: 22)

      We have analyzed this text where Jesus responds to the envoys of John the Baptist in our chapter on John the Baptist. The fact that Jesus claims to have healed the blind is confirmed by the multiple attestations of the sources (Mark, Q, John) and the multiple attestations of the forms (miracle stories and speeches of Jesus).

  3. Persons afflicted with "Leprosy"

    We are faced with three difficulties here.

    1. The number of stories is extremely small, in fact two stories which many biblical scholars attribute to the creative activity of the evangelists.

    2. The cure of leprosy, more than any other kind of healing, is received with scepticism by the critics. The German Pesch considers that the evangelists simply seek to make Jesus an eschatological prophet, someone who performs miracles like Elijah and Elisha. Yet this face of Jesus as an eschatological prophet is strongly rooted in the tradition that goes back to Jesus, and since he stands out from the others in performing miracles, it is not surprising that he is associated with Elijah or Elisha.

    3. It is not clear what the New Testament understands by leprosy. Today it is Hansen's disease, caused by the bacillus mycobacterium leprae. In the Old Testament, Leviticus (ch. 13-14), written around 6th c. BC, uses the Hebrew word sara'at to describe fungi or mould on tissues and in houses as well as to describe various skin infections. Hansen's disease appeared later, after the time of Alexander the Great (4th century BC). Although it is possible that Hansen's disease was known in the New Testament world, it is best to stick to the Leviticus definition of a skin disease.

    1. Mark 1: 40-45 (parr.)

      At the base is the traditional structure of the miracle stories: 1) presentation of the problem which includes a request for healing; 2) Jesus performs the healing by extending his hand; 3) the confirmation of the healing will be finalized by the priest and the offering prescribed by Moses. But this basic story is filled with feelings both from the leper (he begs, kneels down, trusts Jesus) and from Jesus (moved with compassion, then gets angry with him, expels him). And finally, in v. 45, which concludes the story, we clearly see Mark's editorial hand where there is a tension between the messianic secret and the ever-expanding reputation of Jesus. But the very fact that Mark modifies a tradition which would otherwise be very schematic and austere prevents us from saying that this account is purely a creation of Mark.

    2. Luke 7: 11-19

      This story has two clearly defined parts: first ten lepers ask Jesus to have mercy on them, and Jesus answers by asking them to go to the priests. Then, in the second part, the lepers having been healed on the way, a Samaritan leper returns to Jesus to express his gratitude. These two parts correspond to two literary genres, a concise account of a miracle by Jesus using a simple word, then an apophtegm, i.e. a short story which plays a preparatory role in the formulation of a memorable sentence. This second part gives the theological meaning of the story: the healing brought by the Samaritan's faith is true salvation and is more important than the simple physical healing obtained by the nine other Jews. Here we have an important theme from Luke, first of all the Jewish-Samaritan (or Gentile) opposition found in his Acts of the Apostles and the emphasis on the power of Jesus who heals at a distance (the lepers will be healed while they are on the way).

      Is this a pure literary creation of Luke? No, it is not. In fact, if the story seems so complex, it is because Luke seems to be reworking his own source, called L. This is confirmed by two important observations.

      1. The story opens with an almost unintelligible sentence that is literally said: Jesus was passing through the middle of Samaria and Galilee. First of all, the expression "through the middle" (dia meson) does not exist anywhere in the New Testament or in the Greek version of the Old Testament, and is not part of Luke's style. But above all, the sequence Samaria then Galilee makes no sense in the context of Luke's account where Jesus has just left Galilee in the north, on his way to Judea in the south, with Samaria in the middle of these two regions: the sequence should have been Galilee, then Samaria, since Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and even better, Galilee should not have been mentioned since Jesus has already left this region. How can we explain this incongruity? Luke is probably borrowing a story from another geographical setting.

      2. There are many words and phrases in this account that are found nowhere else in Luke's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, and even in the entire New Testament: leper as adjective (leproi), men (andres), Jesus the Master (Jesu epistata), stranger (allogenes), etc.

      Is this account that Luke would have received from the L tradition a creation of the primitive Church based on the leper story of Mk 1: 40-45 that we analyzed above? The differences between the two stories are too numerous to be so: the geographical setting is different (Galilee vs. Samaria), the characters are different (a Jewish leper vs. ten lepers including a Samaritan), the attitude of the characters are different (physical contact vs. maintaining a distance), the way of healing is different (immediate healing by extending the hand vs. delayed and distant healing with a word), the reaction after healing (spreading the news everywhere vs. returning to Jesus to express gratitude and faith). In short, the tradition L of this story is independent of the Markan tradition.

    3. Conclusions on the Healing of Leprosy

      If we add to the two texts analyzed the response of Jesus to the envoys of John the Baptist ("The lepers are cleansed", Mt 11: 5 par), then we have three independent traditions (Mark, L and Q) which affirm that Jesus was seen as someone who healed lepers. Thus, the healing of lepers is a tradition that goes back to the historical Jesus and is not a pure creation of the early Church. However, we can say nothing more in concrete details.

  4. Various Healings of Which Only One Incident is Reported

    The problem with the miracle stories that follow is that we have only one copy, and as a corollary, we have only one independent source. Therefore, in order to be faithful to the criteria that have been put in place, we have to expect that we will be unable to demonstrate that they can be historical. However, before making an overall judgement, let us analyse them one by one.

    1. Peter's Mother-in-Law (Mark 1: 29-31 parr.)

      The context is that of a typical day in Jesus' life. The account itself is extremely brief, only three verses: Jesus approaches the feverish mother-in-law and makes her get up, taking her hand. One could say that this is not healing, since fever is a symptom, not an illness. The account contains concrete and precise details on four points: 1) the time, i.e. the Sabbath day when she left the synagogue; 2) the place, i.e. Simon Peter's house in Capernaum; 3) the audience, i.e. Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, James and John, the two sons of Zebedee; 4) the beneficiary, i.e. Simon Peter's mother-in-law. These details could be evoked to support the historicity. But as we have seen, concrete and colorful details are not in themselves a proof of historicity. However, one could evoke the criterion of multiple attestations to affirm that Simon Peter was married, since we have two testimonies, this account and the epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9: 5 ).

    2. The Woman with the Hemorrhage (Mark 5: 24-34 parr.)

      The structure of this story is quite peculiar, because we have two miracle stories intertwined, or rather the healing of the hemorrhoid is sandwiched between the beginning and the end of the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus. This literary structure, also called A-B-A' is quite typical of Mark, for it is found in a scene of opposition encountered by Jesus with his family and the scribes in Jerusalem (Mk 3: 20-35), the curse on the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple (Mk 11: 12-25), the trial before the Sanhedrin and the denial of Peter (Mk 14: 53-72). But in order to understand our account, we do not need the other account.

      The subject of the account is rather delicate, a gynaecological problem (probably chronic uterine haemorrhages). This problem caused the woman to be in a state of ritual impurity, according to the law of Leviticus, and also made the beings she touched impure. We can imagine the inner conflict of the woman who shares the popular and magical belief that she could be healed by physical contact with Jesus, but knows that at the same time she will contaminate a holy man. Her solution: sneakily touching Jesus' garment from behind. According to Mark, Jesus felt a healing power coming out of his body, like an electric current. This story plunges us somewhat into a magical world. It is amazing that Jesus' power does not go as far as to know who touched him, since he has to ask the question and wait for the woman to identify herself. In conclusion, Mark tries to attenuate the magical side of his story by ending with the mention of the woman's faith.

      There is no need to invoke the magic touch to take the story back to an event in Jesus' time. First of all, all the other cases of miracle stories with a high magical flavour are found only in Mark (the deaf-mute in Mk 7: 31-37, the blind man of Bethsaida in Mk 8: 22-26), which may be a tendency of the evangelist or of his tradition. Moreover, the magical features of a story as well as its lively and colourful character are no guarantee of historicity. And here, since we cannot evoke the character of multiple attestations, we cannot validate its historicity.

    3. The Man with Dropsy (Luke 14: 1-6)

      The whole story is oriented towards a controversy with the Pharisees, because Jesus takes the initiative to confront them with a question: "Is it permissible on the Sabbath to heal or not?" In the silence of his audience, he concludes with a rhetorical question: "Which of you, if his son or his ox should fall into a well, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath?" The whole text shows an important editorial work by Luke. Moreover, Luke's account is similar to Matthew 12: 11 (the man with the paralyzed hand), although in Matthew's account we speak rather of sheep falling into a hole. This story is also similar to Mark 3: 4, which asks whether it is better to do good or evil on the Sabbath. Do all these stories come from a single event and their difference is due to an evolution in oral tradition? It is possible, but the biggest obstacle to its historicity is that it is unlikely that a healing by Jesus by means of a touch or a word on the Sabbath was considered a serious violation of the Sabbath by most Jews.

      Some unique features of the account can be mentioned, beginning with the disease of dropsy, which is not mentioned anywhere else in the Old and New Testaments, as well as the fact that the healing does not take place in a synagogue but in a Pharisee's house, or the fact that Jesus heals not only by word but by touch, or the fact that his action does not lead to a hostile plot against him. But these unique features are not enough to determine whether the account is based on a historical event, and so it is better not to conclude anything.

    4. The Deaf-Mute (Mark 7: 31-37)

      The analysis of this account allows us to see Mark's editorial work, because it is part of a whole that is called the "section of the loaves" (Mt 6: 30 - 8: 21) because of the theme of bread that runs through the whole section. The story of the healing of the deaf and dumb must be read in parallel with that of the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8: 22-26), because both stories symbolically represent the deafness and blindness of the disciples, whom Jesus reproaches throughout the section for not understanding anything (6: 52: they had not understood the miracle of the loaves, but their minds were blocked; 7: 18: you too are so dumb? 8: 17: Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?). Finally, by geographically locating this story in Gentile territory, Mark anticipates the Christian mission to the Gentiles.

      That being said, we must however note the presence in the seven verses of the account of an impressive number of words that we find nowhere else in Mark's Gospel. Moreover, the story is full of ritual and symbolic actions that have a taste of magic: Jesus places his fingers in the ears of the deaf man, then his saliva on the tongue of the man who is also dumb, before making a groan with his eyes turned towards heaven. We must recognize that Jesus' method corresponds to those of the healers of his time and that his groaning is probably only a gesture of prayer. But the fact remains that Matthew and Luke felt embarrassed by this story to the point of omitting it from their Gospel. Finally, Jesus speaks an Aramaic word in healing the man: "Ephphata" (Open up), the only Aramaic word for healing in the whole of Mark's Gospel.

      In short, the presence of unique words and phrases throughout the Gospel, and the fact that the criteria of embarrassment and discontinuity can be evoked, argue in favour of an event that would have taken place in Jesus' life. Finally, we could add the criterion of multiple attestations, since to Mark's account we can add the Q document (see Mt 11: 5 par.) which evokes Jesus' response to John the Baptist's envoys by saying that the deaf hear.

    5. The Ear of the Slave of the High Priest (Luke 22: 49-51)

      The four evangelists report the basic story: When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, someone beat the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. This is the only common feature of the evangelists who write four different stories.

      Mark presents the shortest story. He never says that the person who used his sword is a disciple of Jesus, but speaks vaguely of someone in the audience. (Mk 14: 47). Thus, in the midst of total confusion, someone in the crowd that had come to arrest Jesus accidentally cut off the ear of an anonymous slave of the high priest.

      Matthew has no other source for the account of the passion than Mark's own. The differences in his Gospel can be explained by his theologizing of Mark's work. Thus he emphasizes the theme of Jesus' relationship with his disciples, especially Jesus' desire to be with his disciples in times of crisis, even if they are unable to do so throughout his ministry. It is therefore a touch of irony that he introduces when he makes this anonymous figure who draws his sword a disciple of Jesus: one of those who did not know how to watch and pray with him now tries to be with him through violence, the same violence that the Sermon on the Mount denounced (Mt 5: 38-48). Likewise, since Matthew's Jesus is still in control of the situation, he takes advantage of the melee of his arrest to teach his disciples. Thus, Matthew's version of the severed ear of the slave of the high priest can be explained by his editorial interests.

      Luke agrees with Matthew that the man with the sword should be made a disciple of Jesus, but he points out that it is the right ear, perhaps the more important of the two. Moreover, Luke's Jesus responds to unsolicited violence in two particular ways. First, when the disciples say, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?" and one of them removes his right ear, Jesus will reply, "Leave it alone; it is enough". This scene echoes that of the Last Supper when Jesus announces that the time of crisis has come, that we must sell our cloak to buy a sword, and the disciples reply, "Lord, here are two swords here"; at that moment Jesus says to them, "That is enough". These two scenes show the misunderstanding of the disciples and their mistaken confidence in weapons. Secondly, Jesus responds to the violence by healing the slave's ear: "And when he had touched the ear, he healed it". This scene is a pure creation of Luke, since his only source seems to be Mark, who does not have this scene. Moreover, the whole pericope is imbued with Luke's style and vocabulary, and is in keeping with his theology of Jesus' compassion for all the sick.

      In the evangelist John, the tendency to create a legend with this scene reaches its logical conclusion: the man with the sword is Christianized to identify him now with Simon Peter. This identification is very useful to him in his literary construction: not having a prayer scene in Gethsemane, it is a way for him to reintroduce Peter to the reader and put him back in the passion narrative, and to create a link with the scene of his denial of Jesus, showing the full extent of the spiritual disaster. Indeed, the third denial is prompted by the remarks of a relative of the slave whose ear he cut off. Thus, the scene of Peter drawing his sword is a literary and theological invention of the evangelist himself.

      It must therefore be concluded that the scene of the healing of the ear of the slave of the high priest is a creation of Luke himself and cannot be traced back to the historical Jesus.

  5. The Special Case of the Centurion's Servant (Matthew 8: 5-13 parr.)

    This account probably comes from Q document, since it is found in both Matthew and Luke. There is also a similar story in John, the healing of a son of the royal official. Between these three stories, there are immediate variations in the illness: in Matthew, the person is paralyzed and in terrible pain, while in Luke and John the person is about to die. A parallel can also be drawn between this miracle which takes place at a distance and other miracles of the same type which also take place at a distance: the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus, the healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician, the healing of the ten lepers. However, the differences outweigh the similarities, so it is better to reserve a special study for this special case of the centurion's servant.

    First we must answer two questions: 1) Is the story about the centurion's servant from Q document and the one about the son of the royal official in John a variation of the same primitive tradition? 2) Does John's version depend on that of Matthew and Luke?

    Let's first look at the similarities between the three stories: :

    1. The sick person remains in Capernaum where the centurion or royal officer would also reside.
    2. The centurion or officer requests a miraculous healing for his servant or son.
    3. Jesus gives an initial response to the request
    4. In response to Jesus' answer, the petitioner makes a more urgent appeal
    5. Jesus responds to this call by healing the servant or son from a distance.
    6. At the end of the pericope, healing is confirmed.

    Alongside these similarities, there are the divergences, but these divergences can be explained by the theological agenda of each evangelist, or by the variations of a primitive tradition that evolves in his oral practice. Let us examine them more closely.

    1. The place of the miracle is different. The oldest tradition was to place the miracle in Capernaum, a border zone between the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas and that of his half-brother Philip, thus a customs post and a military garrison. John, on the other hand, places the scene at Cana. This localization is probably due to a literary choice of the evangelist who, on the one hand, by accentuating the distance between Jesus and the sick person, emphasizes the therapeutic power of Jesus, and on the other hand, creates an inclusion with the first sign of Cana (water changed into wine) to link the two scenes.

    2. The identity of the petitioner is different. Matthew and Luke speak of a centurion. Although technically the word refers to someone who, in the Roman army, commands 100 soldiers, it can be seen that over the ages the centurion has come to carry out tasks other than military ones, such as guard, policeman, construction project supervisor or judge. They were not a homogeneous group. Someone like Antipas had his own army to guard the borders of the tetrarchy of Galilee-Perea, and this army was not Roman. Also, the ethnic origin of the centurion in our story remains ambiguous. Matthew and Luke make this centurion a gentile. This corresponds to their theological agenda, Matthew to announce a reversal of the situation where the Gentiles will precede the Gentiles in the Kingdom, Luke to prefigure the scene of the centurion Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles (ch. 10). For John, the petitioner, called the royal officer, is clearly a Jew. In the fourth Gospel, the Gentiles never speak directly to Jesus, for it is only after His death and resurrection that the Gentiles will be called to salvation by the Spirit poured out into the world. Thus, making the applicant a Jew corresponds to John's theological agenda. Which of the three evangelists is right? It is to be believed that the early tradition had remained vague about the identity of the petitioner, which allowed each evangelist to give it a personal twist.

    3. The identity of the healed person is different. Luke speaks of a slave, a boy who is a slave. John speaks of a son, a little boy who is his son. Matthew, finally, is much more vague by mentioning only a boy. It is possible that the early tradition of Q and John used only the vague term boy (gr. pais), which allowed both oral and written tradition to interpret the term differently. Moreover, the same ambiguity is found in the underlying Aramaic term, talya, meaning boy, both for servant and son.

    What can we conclude? First, the similarities between the three stories are sufficient to affirm that they reflect the same primitive tradition. Second, John's independence from the Q tradition of Matthew and Luke can be confirmed, as the bizarre mixture of similarities and differences can best be explained by admitting that John used an independent source. Third, it can be argued that the core of the tradition probably originates from a historical event, for the following reasons. First, we have here a case of multiple attestations, since John and Q document testify to the same event. Second, we can evoke the criterion of embarrassment, since the narrative shows us a Jesus surprised and astonished before the faith of the petitioner, a trait which shows the humanity of Jesus, a trait quickly eliminated by John which accentuates the divine origin of Jesus. Finally, the narrative contains a number of Semitism and sheds light on the Palestinian environment, particularly Capernaum, a border town where it was normal for a centurion or a civil servant to exercise his profession. What happened there? As Jesus approached or entered the city of Capernaum, an official of Herod Antipas, probably a centurion, stationed in the city, asked Jesus to heal a boy of his family, and Jesus would have acquiesced to his request by healing from a distance.

  6. Conclusion

    Various criteria of historicity lead us to affirm that the historical Jesus performed a number of actions during his public ministry that he and his contemporaries interpreted as miraculous healings of the sick and infirm. The main categories of healing involve people with paralysed limbs, blindness, various skin diseases (leprosy), or being deaf and dumb. As far as individual miracle stories are concerned, a number of them are likely to be traced back to the historical Jesus, even if they have been reworked and developed from a Christian theological perspective : the paralyzed man being lowered through the roof, the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, the blind man Bartimaeus begging at the gate of Jericho, the blind man of Bethsaida, the blind man who washed himself at the pool of Siloam, the deaf and dumb, and the servant or son of an officer of Antipas. However, the detail of these illnesses is forever lost to us.

Next chapter: Did Jesus even rise people from the dead?

List of all chapters